Korean cuisine is all about the jang — that is, the ganjang, doenjang, gochujang, and other soybean-based sauces and pastes, whose fermentation brings complexity and depth to every dish they season. If you're looking to experiment with fermented flavors, there are three major jang ingredients you'll spot in just about every Korean kitchen (and may want to stock in your own).
1. Ganjang: Soy Sauce
Ganjang is soy sauce. Within the classification, there are two key types: wae-ganjang and guk-ganjang.
Wae-ganjang is darker in color, sweeter in taste, and often used in marinades for grilling, stir-frying, or braising, as well as in dipping sauces. Among wae-ganjang there's yangjo-ganjang, naturally fermented, and jin-ganjang, a mix that's comprised of both naturally and chemically produced sauces, which makes it cheaper. The higher the yangjo-ganjang content, the pricier the product will be. To cut costs, you can opt for jin-ganjang in dishes that require a large volume of soy sauce and undergo a longer cooking process, and limit yangjo-ganjang to dipping sauces.
Wae-ganjang was adopted from Japan in the late 1800s and is a Korean cooking staple today. Guk-ganjang, however, has a much longer history in the country and remains the ganjang of choice for many traditional cooks. Also known as Joseon ganjang (as in Korea's Joseon Dynasty that reigned from the late 1300s to the late 1800s), guk-ganjang has a lighter shade and a richer flavor. Its notably saltier profile features well in soups (guk means soup in Korean), salads, and banchan vegetable side dishes. And because of its strong seasoning, a little goes a long way.
2. Doenjang: Fermented Soybean Paste
Essentially the co-product of ganjang, doenjang is a fermented soybean paste that packs an umami punch. Best known as the star ingredient in doenjang jjigae — its namesake, and Korea's most beloved stew — the paste is also used in many other soups and side dishes. If "fermented soybean paste" doesn't mean much to you, think of doenjang as Japanese miso's bolder, badder cousin, with a more bitter, sour note to it.
It's also a component, along with the next jang on the list, of the ssamjang dipping sauce that's popularly tucked into barbecued meat lettuce wraps.
3. Gochujang: Red Chile Paste
It's gochujang's signature shade that lends a fiery hue to many of Korea's most famous dishes and signals the spice awaiting your palate. The fire-alarm rouge of ddeokbokki rice cakes? That's gochujang. The crimson sauce served alongside bibimbap mixed rice? Gochujang. Really, much of the time you see a Korean soup, stew, dressing, or condiment that's bright-red in color, you likely have gochujang to thank.
Made of red chili pepper flakes, rice syrup, rice powder, and fermented soybeans, the paste is a unique balance of piquant and sweet. While many gochujang products contain corn syrup, the highest quality do not, so be sure to check the ingredient label before buying.
Like ganjang and doenjang, gochujang is best preserved if it's refrigerated after opening.
Read more: Gochujang: The Spicy Miso of Korean Cooking